Intelligence Community Leaks Are Normalizing Domestic Surveillance Abuses

from the nation's-shit-to-remain-fucked-for-the-forseeable-future dept

It’s the normal state of things, but familiarity makes it no less enjoyable to observe: power changes hands in the White House and suddenly everything the previous president authorized with the support of his followers becomes a dangerous weapon in the hands of the new guy. The only surprising thing is the cycle never ends.

As has been noted here, longtime fans of government surveillance under Obama were suddenly deeply concerned about Trump’s command of the nation’s spycraft. Then there were all those Republicans who helped assemble the surveillance machinery in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, expressing their displeasure with the FBI, NSA, and others using powers they’d granted them. Domestic surveillance is fine, they argued. Years later, it’s NIMBY but for recently-elected presidents.

But there’s a darker current running below the irony and schadenfreude. Both sides applaud possible surveillance abuses when they harm their political enemies, but act like these are Espionage Act violations when the target is one of their own. The ultimate problem isn’t the right/left, Republican/Democrat partisan divide and the hypocrisy that goes with it. The problem is the abuse/misuse of surveillance powers for political gamesmanship.

The FBI didn’t go rogue after Trump canned Director James Comey in the most duplicitous, chickenshit way ever. It had been coloring outside of the lines for months, if not years, with Comey making the most of his many grandstands to push his personal agenda at the expense of the agency’s. He routinely made statements others in the DOJ have refused to back up and broke protocol (twice) by openly discussing investigations that resulted in no criminal charges.

The Trump presidency has been notable for the number of leaks it has prompted, which seem to spring from nearly every agency with access to collected intelligence. The reaction to the leaks by the Trump Administration has been awful in pretty much every way, and the looming threat of prosecution by Jeff Sessions’ god-guns-and-government DOJ hasn’t done much to slow the bleeding.

What’s being overlooked is the danger this autonomy poses. While some would love to see every presidential administration undermined by intelligence leaks [raises hand], this isn’t always a good thing. Nor is it something that should be cheered on without reservation when it’s the other side sustaining damage. Agencies with access to domestic communications (and there are a lot of them, thanks to loosened information-sharing restrictions) have their own agendas to push, too, and they’re rarely directly aligned with either party.

As Julian Sanchez notes, partisans need to stop cheering when things go their way and crying foul when they don’t. The problem goes far beyond politics and stabs at the heart of rights and protections the government is supposed to be ensuring for everyone.

If we take it at face value (leaving aside whether that’s proper), the Flynn intercept reveals a president-elect apparently worried that his foreign policy would be undermined by his own government’s intelligence agencies. It would be easier to dismiss that fear as yet another fit of Trumpian paranoia if it didn’t seem like we were learning about that conversation from wiretaps.

Progressives who’ve recently learned to stop worrying and love the surveillance state should think hard about the precedent such leaks set — and the implicit message they send to political actors — even if any particular instance can be justified as serving the public interest. The leaks may not be, as conservative media would have it, the only real scandal, but nobody should be too enthusiastic about the prospect of living in a country where officials who antagonize spy agencies find their telephone conversations quoted in news headlines.

Speaking personally, as much as I’d like to see every president supportive of constant surveillance and law enforcement mission creep be the victim of an apparatus they think they control, I also want overreaching agencies to be subjected to the same involuntary transparency and accountability. But the power has tipped too far in one direction, thanks largely to the alienating acts of the current administration. The IC is not-so-subtly sending out a warning to meddling politicians and enemies of their desires. In an effort to undermine an administration they don’t like, unnamed intelligence community operatives are undermining the entire system. It won’t stop here. It will only get worse.

The response to the leaks only aggravates the issue. A desire to punish leakers for exposing the administration’s misdeeds will result in harsher policies and punishments for whistleblowers, who cannot help but be caught up in the purge the DOJ is threatening. The agencies themselves have already put themselves in the position to nullify their oversight through the existential threat of leaked communications. A hunt for whistleblowers and leakers (often the same thing) will only increase the agencies’ autonomy, making them even more dangerous in the future.

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Comments on “Intelligence Community Leaks Are Normalizing Domestic Surveillance Abuses”

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Roger Strong (profile) says:

There should also be a recognition that international surveillance can go both ways.

There’s a common theme with complaints by Americans about surveillance, drone strikes, kidnapping and torture programs and whatnot. (A June 2006 report from the Council of Europe estimated 100 people had been kidnapped by the CIA on EU territory.) That theme: It’s all peachy-keen when they do it to foreigners, but HOW DARE THEY do it to Americans!

As always, turnabout is fair play. If the US finds it acceptable to spy on the leaders, companies and citizens of allied countries – and they do – then it’s acceptable for even allied countries to spy on Americans.

Anonymous Coward says:

Not quite

“The IC is not-so-subtly sending out a warning to meddling politicians and enemies of their desires. In an effort to undermine an administration they don’t like…”

This isn’t about undermining an administration they don’t like. The professionals in the IC have worked for a very long time under all kinds of administrations — some they like, some they don’t, it varies with every individual who’s part of the IC and with the administration.

This is about exposing an administration that gained office due to Russian interference in American elections AND which is deeply beholden to Russian interests, both political and financial. (Of course in many cases, those two overlap heavily.)

The IC certainly has its agendas, and different people and different organizations often squabble over them. But they consider themselves patriots. So while they might tolerate President pussygrabber’s stupidity, illiteracy, racism, bigotry, dementia (it IS obvious to everyone by now, isn’t it?), lying, poor impulse control, etc., they are not going to tolerate his treason. Everything else they could ignore or work around, but not this.

The same is true, by the way, of German and British and French intelligence. They could ignore and have ignored the personal failings of American administrations for a long time. But they’re not going to ignore someone who is quite clearly Putin’s obedient bitch.

Expect the leaks to increase until this administration is remove from office and relocated to prison.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Not quite

The problem I see with trying to bring the Intelligence Community under control, is how far down the bureaucratic chain does one need to go the get all of the ‘cancer’? There are certainly issues at the top level, what about the immediate underlings? Isn’t there some sort of ‘business continuity or continuation’ plan? Aren’t some junior managers being groomed for future leadership? Just how many people, in each agency, have had a sip of the koolaid?

This is an issue of the existence of the Military Industrial Intelligence Complex. The control will likely have to be financial (actually catching spooks and jailing them is going to be difficult and long term). That control lies with Congress, but it is also likely that congressional members have been compromised to the extent that getting them to control budgets sufficiently to bring agencies under control is past correcting. Also, compromising future congresscritters is probably a piece of cake.

In the mean time, there is important work for the Intelligence Community to perform, and we need that work done. How to separate the wheat from the chaff (building relevant and usefully sized haystacks while doing timely analysis and communication of issues found) and working to perform necessary rather than ideological work is the real question.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not quite

But ignoring the personal deficits of the president is difficult to partmentalize. How can you be sure that such information isn’t part of why the case about Russia is getting so heavily covered by leakers?

As mentioned before, you can only assure political control of the IC by keeping the divide between domestic and foreign interests hermetically closed and have the government control their interaction, which would require changes from current status quo as NSA acts like an independent bridge between the interests, short-cirquiting the DOJ and congress through legal word-feud.

Right now the leaks from the current investigations seems to affirm either very clear problematic activity or a president hated by the people investigating him. If it is the former, then it might seem acceptably while if it is the latter a witchhunt isn’t far off describing it.

Either way, the congress, the president and the intelligence community has acted in this case has been bordering on different types of abuses. In reality you should always be able to trust IC implicitly, but for now the setup, the leaks from IC and the political circus it creates, is making the implicitness of trust completely impossible to obtain!

Anonymous Coward says:

>So while they might tolerate President pussygrabber’s stupidity, illiteracy, racism, bigotry, dementia (it IS obvious >to everyone by now, isn’t it?), lying, poor impulse control, etc. they are not going to tolerate his treason.

This quote really sums it up for me. Trump is by no stretch of imagination suited for his office, and extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. If they can bring him down, I wish them well in it.

aerinai says:

Re: Re:

I think the point of the article is literally arguing against using our intelligence community in this way. Today we use it ‘because it is just against an unfit commander in chief’… but what stops this from being used against a Democrat/Republican Senate seat in a closely tied election? What stops them from using this to dredge up unflattering information about a journalist that is investigating the government on corruption? What stops them from using this against human rights activists that are protesting against the government on civil liberties violations?

The answer is nothing…. any time this power is abused, we all lose.

The problem is the sheer amount of power and no oversight and no accountability. The sooner people understand this, the sooner reforms can be had. Until then, the intelligence establishment will continue to play left and right and keep gaining more and more powers.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Today we use it ‘because it is just against an unfit commander in chief’… but what stops this from being used against a Democrat/Republican Senate seat in a closely tied election?”

It’s even worse than that. You are seeing him as “an unfit commander in chief” because the IC is tell you he is. How sure can you be that their evidence is not manufactured? How can you be sure the “other” guy is not doing the same or worse things, but the IC agrees with them so they are not spilling out this information.

Because the intelligence agencies have agendas, you cannot be sure you can really tell the difference between an unfit leader and someone that is simply not liked by the IC.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t need the IC to tell me he’s unfit: HE told me that he’s unfit. He did so before the election, and he’s continuing to do so now. It is obvious on inspection by the casual observer, to use an academic phrase.

Even if I gave him a pass on egregious conduct like supporting Philippine thug Duterte or wrecking our alliance with Germany or characterizing the press as the enemy — even if I managed to drink enough Koolaid to think these were good things (and they’re most certainly not) — it is painfully obvious that he’s suffering from dementia. He can’t absorb information — which is why briefings are short and heavily graphics-laden. He can’t remember what he himself has said. He doesn’t know how government works, i.e., he doesn’t know that an administration proposal under consideration by Congress is not yet a law. He can’t construct a sentence. He can’t pay attention for even moderate periods of time. He has no concept whatsoever of the gravity of his office and his responsibilities. And it’s clearly exhausting for him to even try to keep up, which is why he bailed on parts of his trip just a few days in. He’s losing his mind in front of the whole world.

I don’t need the IC to tell me any of that: all I have to do is listen and read.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Trump is by all measures suited for the job:

– He is a beep who says what he wants to.
– He is very good at turning US international goodwill into money.
– He is willing to do suicide missions to try and get his election promises through.
– He doesn’t care about mainstream “experts”. By bypassing them he is showing the alternative.
– He didn’t take money from business people (instead of taking their money, he has brought some into his administration, thereby making them responsible).
– He is not corrupted by politics and thus acts awkward.
– He is a real-politician. He doesn’t give a beep about what is moral untill it can affect USA.
– He has all the way through his campaign been nice to Putin and respects him.

Those are exactly the merits he was elected on. Wait the 3 ½ more years out. The alternative if Trump is removed is Mike Pence and god knows what happens if he is removed too…

Doug says:

Re: Re: Joking?

I literally can’t tell if you are joking. Trump supporters say those things. Yet you imply Pence is a worse choice, which is not so much a thing in the Trumpiverse.

On the chance that you are serious, those are hardly the measures I’d want as the defining characteristics of the job of POTUS.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Joking?

I think you are mistaking it for an opinion about the person(s). I read some Trump-supporters defeatist attitude of attacking alternatives in rage. Sup snowflakes, this one is dedicated to you!

The comment is an opinion about the situation, how it has occured and what lies ahead. Done is done and learning from how we ended up in the current situation is important. But the alternative to Trump is not desirable either for most people. It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. We are likely doomed to having a “drunk tourist” as president of USA untill next election. Defeatism on all fronts is what won the 2016 presidential election. So it shall be!

Doug says:

+1 Insightful for the Article

I’d like to +1 Insightful for this article. This is something that needs to be said more and in more contexts.

We, as a nation, appear to have lost all objective criteria for the jobs of those who represent us. It’s all partisan. It seems like there is nothing we will not forgive in service of our own partisan agendas.

Trump is the culmination of that. He won because he came to be seen as “for” what his supporters desired. But he has no history of working for those things, no history of delivering on what he promises, no real, tangible reason to believe he could deliver. His supporters *want* him to deliver, but they have no objective reasons to believe he can or will.

Moreover, he has shown himself to be unqualified in so many ways that are so much more unforgivable than what has ever been tolerated before.

I do not think this way of thinking is limited to Trump supporters. We are all guilty of it to some degree.

There has to be some minimum level of qualification we demand as citizens out of those who represent us. The republican and democrat candidates, as much as they may differ on policy proposals, should be nearly indistinguishable in their ethical foundation and their proven experience in government operations.

We are losing our entire moral and ethical foundation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: +1 Insightful for the Article

But isn’t the Tea Party republicans the true defenders of the moral and ethical foundation of USA as it was? Those are the ones backing Trump and bagging the mainstream media. I wouldn’t say it is the ethical and moral foundation that is getting lost. If there ever existed one such thing it has been long gone!

The thing that is lost, is far more problematic: Trust in international solutions. While the international institutions still are somewhat afloat, the solutions and thoughts about where to go foreward internationally is gone.

That is also a big part of why the parties are flipping on issues when the other side wins the presidency: Attacking something is far easier than coming up with something. Attacking international solutions is particularly easy since the international solutions barely have a voice.

No, it is not moral or ethics as such that is falling apart. It is the divide between what happens internationally and what the public elect politicians on that has opened a chasm of dimension: The election in France was exactly divided on that issue between Macron and his pro-internationalistic politics and Le Pen and her nationalistic approach. Trump was the only one seeming to have a policy on that divide and propose to do something. Clinton was acting like the chasm doesn’t exist and ignored giving any real approach away (Sanders almost won against her on an unwinnable social liberal platform with an international inspired approach!).

Untill the politicians start to talk up how they want to change the world, nationalistic rhetorics is hands down winning since people are tired of professional non-speak. “USA first” in the Trumpistic sense is a short-term approach. At some point the issue of how you want to approach a subject has to go through international treaties to be able to leverage something against ie. China. If you reneg on international promises, you are losing trust among the rest of the world and moving towards “might makes right”. None of which is a good long-term approach to politics, since international relations are so darn important nowadays.

Anonymous Coward says:

A simple way to drain the swamp

put them all in jail for life, every politician, every government worker right down to the drones at the dmv, every cop, soldier, social worker, shrink and administrator, they are all collaborators, their heads should be shaved and they should be separated from society so they can’t do any more damage, for life. lock em up throw away the key and don’t bother to feed them.

Something blah blah AOSP says:

Re: A simple way to drain the swamp

Well, that’s a little harsh. Many or most government workers want to change the world and make it better, safer, freer, stronger. Of course no one wants the person raping them to be the same person counseling them, but how many such examples exist?
It is frightening to imagine being under steady surveillance just because somebody doesn’t like you. Their egos might not let them fail to find evidence that never existed. Some people can’t stand to be wrong.
How could we find out how many people really are under surveillance and how many of these people claim abuse stories?

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